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Opinion: Evangelical Leaders Should Criminalize Adult Clergy Sex Abuse, Not ‘Restore’ Offenders

Por Julie Roys
Stephen Strang IHOPKC Mike Bickle
IHOPKC Founder Mike Bickle in the office of Charisma CEO Stephen Strang in 2020. (Source: Facebook)

En un podcast reciente, Baylor University Professor David Pooler urged Christians to support laws criminalizing adult clergy sexual abuse (ACSA).

As Pooler clearly articulated, pastors hold tremendous power over those entrusted to their care. And because of this power imbalance, sexual involvement between a pastor and a congregant or staff member cannot rightly be considered consensual. It is abuse.

Currently, 14 states have laws criminalizing ACSA. And California is considering expanding a law prohibiting sexual contact between physicians and therapists and their patients/clients to include clergy and their parishioners.

You would think every evangelical leader, denomination, and church planting organization would wholeheartedly support criminalizing this unconscionable pastoral misconduct. But what we see is the exact opposite.

Instead of supporting laws criminalizing ACSA, many evangelical leaders and organizations are working to restore offenders!

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A case in point is Charisma Media CEO Stephen Strang, who on January 30, published a podcast advocating for the restoration of deshonrado International House of Prayer Kansas City (IHOPKC) Founder mike bickle. (Strang has since removed the podcast from YouTube, but I grabbed a copy of it before he did.)

Speaking as though those wanting to disqualify Bickle were part of some left-wing conspiracy, Strang stated, “I believe that the spirit of the world is invading the church. I believe that what has been done to Mike Bickle is a type of cancel culture. . . . (M)ost people have done something years ago that they regret. And how long do you hold that against them?”

Clergy sexual abuse is not merely something one “regrets.” It’s a devastating betrayal of trust that severely wounds its victims.

According to Dr. Pooler, 39% of ACSA survivors he studied suffered from PTSD. A staggering 80% in Pooler’s study said the abuse negatively affected their spiritual life, and half said it negatively affected their relationship with God.

Strang used Galatians 6 as his biblical basis for restoring fallen pastors. The text says that when “someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.”

But the text is talking about restoring sinners to fellowship—not to leadership.

When it comes to leaders, James 3:1 says they will be judged more harshly. Titus 1:6 says church leaders must be above reproach. And 1 Timothy 5:20 says elders who persist in sin should be rebuked publicly so others may stand in fear.

Yet Strang overlooks Scripture’s clear teaching and instead resorts to conspiracy theories, implying that those speaking against Bickle are “one-world-government type of people.”

“They have to get rid of the United States because the United States stands against that,” Strang states. “To get rid of the United States, they have to get rid of the Christian community that is kind of holding things together . . . And IHOPKC is only one of many ministries to do this, but they’re one of the most prominent.”

That Strang would promote such foolishness is mind-numbing. But he’s sadly, not unique.

Practically every investigation of pastoral misconduct I’ve done has involved Christian leaders protecting offenders and attacking whistleblowers. I wish this pattern would change, and the Christian community would speak as one to criminalize ACSA and protect the vulnerable, but these patterns are deeply entrenched.

Within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), there have been scores of pastors guilty of clergy sexual abuse that have been protected by denominational leaders and re-platformed.

After a damning report showing decades of this practice, the SBC vowed to do better. But just last October, lawyers for several SBC entities filed a brief in Kentucky, aimed at limiting the ability of survivors to file civil abuse claims against third parties, like churches. Once again, the SBC protected abusers and their institutions, not survivors.

And then there’s disgraced former SBC President Johnny Hunt, who allegedly sexually assaulted the wife of a pastor within his denomination—a blatant case of ACSA. Within months of the allegations becoming public, four SBC pastors recorded a video claiming Hunt was restored and ready for ministry. Several months after that, Hunt preached at New Season Church in Hiram, Georgia. Hunt just finished leading a men’s conference at New Season la semana pasada.

johnny hunt mens conference
On January 29, 2023, Johnny Hunt preaches at New Season Church in Hiram, Georgia, despite allegations he sexually assaulted another man’s wife. (Video screengrab)

Once again, there was zero concern for survivors, only for the offending pastor.

But perhaps the most egregious examples of restoring abusive pastors can be found within the Association of Related Churches or ARC.

I have found that very few American Christians have even heard of ARC, even though it’s one of the largest church planting organizations in North America with more than 1,000 churches planted since 2001. Perhaps that’s because many of the churches within ARC don’t advertise their affiliation with the network.

This extremely influential church network has produced some of the fastest growing—and fastest imploding—churches in the country. And ARC is very up-front about its commitment to restore disgraced pastors.

One of its three founders is Chris Hodges, pastor of the 43,000-member megachurch in Alabama, called Iglesia de las Tierras Altas (COTH).

en un conference in 2021, Hodges lamented that he and Dino Rizzo, another founder of ARC and ARC’s executive director, were “in the middle of about 20 pastoral moral failures or restorations right now.” He added, “What was about three-a-year feels like it’s about three-a-month right now . . . That’s fine. I love doing that. I want to be known for that.”

Hodges is so excited about restoring these disgraced pastors that he’s built a $4.5 million lodge for that exact purpose. And clearly, his restoration services are in big demand within ARC, beginning with co-founder Rizzo.

rizzo ACSA
Dino Rizzo (Photo: ARC)

In 2012, Rizzo resigned from his megachurch for what was termed an “inappropriate friendship” with another woman. It has never been revealed whether the woman in this relationship was a congregant in Rizzo’s church.

However, just one year later, Rizzo joined the staff at Church of the Highlands, and was back not only pastoring a congregation but training ARC pastors.

One of those pastors was John Gray, who also served as one of a handful of megachurch pastors on Equipo líder de ARC.

In 2019, Gray admitted to an extra-marital “emotional affair.”

However, the alleged other woman in this “affair” later came forward with damning voice mails from Gray, indicating the “affair” was sexual and revealing that Gray had counseled her as her pastor. In other words, this was not an affair; it was ACSA.

John Gray ARC
John Gray (Video screengrab)

Despite this, Gray continued to pastor his ARC church, Relentless Church, and remained a member of ARC’s Lead Team.

Then, in 2020, another woman claimed she sent Gray nude photos in exchange for money. Gray apologized to his church and remained the pastor. And stunningly, Gray remained on ARC’s Lead Team for another two years.

Micahn Carter is yet a another one of ARC’s attempts at restoration.

In 2019, Carter resigned from his megachurch in Yakima, Washington, after alleged sexual misconduct with his secretary. The church folded and Carter quietly went to Hodges’ Church of the Highlands (COTH) for “ministerial restoration.”

However, that process ended in July 2021, when Carter’s former secretary went public with the allegation that Carter had raped her.

In a statement, COTH said the rape allegation was new. But at minimum, the church knew Carter had engaged in sexual misconduct with an employee, which again, qualifies as ACSA.

Micahn Carter Chris Hodges
Micahn Carter and Chris Hodges bump elbows on stage at Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, in June 2021, just before rape allegations against Carter became public. (Source: Instagram)

But ARC conveniently overlooks ACSA. And according to some lawsuits, ARC leaders even help cover up such abuse.

In October 2021, a former intern at an ARC church in Mississippi sued Dino Rizzo for allegedly covering up sexual harassment by her ARC pastor, Jason Delgado. That case was dismissed because the intern was unpaid and therefore, didn’t qualify as an employee—a prerequisite for consideration under Title IX.

Around the same time, the former assistant of Joshua Mauney, ARC’s former national director of church planting, claimed in a lawsuit that Mauney had raped her. In the suit, the woman also alleged that two members of ARC’s lead team, Rizzo and ARC President Greg Surratt, were responsible for allowing Mauney’s abuse.

The suit ended in an undisclosed settlement and a statement by the plaintiff that the parties were able to “meaningfully discuss our differences” and that ARC “took appropriate action to respond to my concerns.”

Tavner Smith ARC
tavner smith

In December 2021, another ARC pastor was revealed as an alleged perpetrator of abuse.

Tavner Smith, the pastor of Venue Church, an ARC church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was caught in an alleged “affair” with a married parishioner. Again, Smith’s alleged misconduct qualifies as ACSA. But six weeks later, Smith was back in the pulpit.

Within two years, Venue Church folded. But now, Smith has relaunched in Ringgold, Georgia, as the pastor of Hope House, a church he planted just this year. (Hope House does not appear to be a member of ARC.)

One of the biggest scandals within ARC broke in 2022, when Jeremy Foster, pastor of Hope City, a prominent ARC megachurch in Houston, resigned due to an adulterous affair.

This was not abuse and involved a woman outside of Foster’s church. But where Foster landed is shocking, given his betrayal of his wife, his family, and his church.

jeremy foster ACSA
Jeremy Foster (Video screengrab)

Foster now works as the chief marketing officer for Christian leadership guru, Juan Maxwell. Apparently, character matters very little to Maxwell—someone who is training thousands of leaders every year, many of whom are pastors and leaders of Christian organizations.

Again, it appears Christian leaders care much more about protecting and platforming other leaders like themselves, rather than protecting the vulnerable. But why?

Strang offers some clues in his podcast. First, he admits his company publishes Bickle’s books, so there’s a financial incentive.

Similarly, within ARC, there’s also a financial incentive. ARC churches donate 2% of their annual revenue to ARC, though ARC President Greg Surratt has tried to obscure this fact. So, the sooner these disgraced pastors can get re-platformed, the sooner ARC can make money on them.

But I think equally important to Christian leaders and organizations is something Strang also reveals in his podcast.

As previously noted, Strang says “most people” have done things years ago they regret. This makes me wonder how many Christian leaders forgive sexual misconduct because they’re hiding similar misconduct of their own?

Strang further states, “I’m personally concerned that if a big ministry like (IHOPKC) is able to be pulled down, that all ministries are vulnerable.”

That statement is so telling. My guess is Strang realizes that many of the ministries Charisma platforms are houses of cards. And if the rot within them were exposed, they’d come crashing down. And that terrifies Stephen Strang because Charisma could come crashing down with them.

Take the Assemblies of God. As our reporting on the Chi Alpha sex abuse scandal has shown, leaders at the top knew that sex offender Daniel Savala had access to students through the Chi Alpha Campus Ministries. But as one lawsuit argues, they not only were grossly “negligent,” they were “belligerent and defensive” towards those who called them out.

I don’t take any joy in reporting and publishing stories exposing gross sexual misconduct within the church. I also grieve when Christian ministries fall. But I would much rather see them fall than for these ministries to continue to function as the conduit through which wolves prey on vulnerable sheep.

And so, I’m calling on Christian leaders, denominations, and church planting organizations to support laws criminalizing ACSA. Stop protecting yourself. And start protecting the sheep.

Julie Roys es una reportera de investigación veterana y fundadora de The Roys Report. Anteriormente, también presentó un programa de entrevistas nacional en Moody Radio Network, llamado Up for Debate, y ha trabajado como reportera de televisión para una filial de CBS. Sus artículos han aparecido en numerosas publicaciones periódicas. 

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42 Respuestas

  1. One should realize that churches and denominations will NOT support this (and neither will the majority of the pastors and leaders) for the following reasons:

    1) They don’t want to rock the boat and want to be seen as a team player to upper management as it were.
    2) The immense peer pressure, manipulation, group psychology, etc. to making sure they do #1.
    3) The standard circling the wagons BS against the “Godless secular world” trying to take down God’s work (which Strang and others certainly play that card) to protect the brand.
    4) Disbelief that such horrors could happen in their organization.
    5) They are chicken____ cowards who would rather stick their heads in the sand and pretend everything is OK.
    6) And should all those be overcome, there is a fear due to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Plus the reputation in being associated such discredited organizations (Think of all the employees that used to work for Enron for a similar example and how it looks on one’s resume.).
    7) I am sure many of them have skeletons in their closet that they don’t want exposed by others who know (can you say blackmail?). I would not be surprised there was an unspoken quid pro quo in many churches regarding keeping various individuals dirt under the carpet.

    As Julie said, it is a house of cards. Or a giant ponzi scheme, too big to fail, etc. You get the idea. No one wants to admit elephant in the room and be left holding the bag. They all have a vested interest in keeping the things they way they are. So the only real solution is to use civil and criminal proceedings to bankrupt them.

  2. When I joined my current denomination, I had to go to an orientation getaway for newly licensed workers. During one session, our district superintendent told us that there were some kinds of pastoral misconduct that would render us unfit to be returned to ministry. And charges would be possible under law. He was referring to sexual misconduct (even consensual) with anyone under our care. It was nice to hear him say it clearly and from the outset.

    1. I would be interested in knowing: Does this denomination put its money where its mouth is? What happens when allegations arise?

      1. I do not have exhaustive knowledge of every incident in my nation wide denomination.

        I do know of some cases that were handled admirably. I know of one case that was not (same denomination, different district).

        But in the wake of that one mishandled case there was an overhaul. New protocols and a reporting system.

        1. IOW, they actually learned from their mistakes (unlike most churches and denominations). I am shocked and pleasantly surprised.

  3. Folks, please understand that this exposure is what church revival looks like.

    Many of us have been praying for years that God would revive the church. Often times we think this simply means cool music & lots of baptisms. While that’s true, what’s usually overlooked is that in revival God first brings exposure of sin (aka judgment) so that true repentance occurs. Then the fun can begin.

      1. Revival? I never heard of such a “revival” before in all church history. This is a revival of sin an Babylonish churches.

    1. AGREED! ie: Joshua 7; “…they have violated my covenant…taken devoted things, stolen, lied, can’t stand against their enemies, made liable to destruction”

  4. Along with the celebrity/corporate model of many megachurches comes the mindset of “We have a business to run here”. So many churches hope to restore their fallen leaders in order to keep the machine running at full speed

    1. I have a theory that churches and denominations now overlook serious flaws in their leaders that they wouldn’t have 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Smaller churches are competing with megachurches, denomination branding isn’t as strong as it once was, and the de-churching of America continues apace.

      So churches and denominations are more apt to overlook serious flaws in a pastor with a strong personality who’s been able to fill the pews up to the time of his potentially-disqualifying offense and opt for restoration.

  5. ‘As previously noted, Strang says “most people” have done things years ago they regret. This makes me wonder how many Christian leaders forgive sexual misconduct because they’re hiding similar misconduct of their own?’

    I think this hits the nail on the head!

    Thank you for the hard work that you do, Julie!

    1. I suspect there are a lot of skeletons in Christian leaders’ closets and I would not doubt there is an unspoken understanding for all the leaders to maintain the coverups with each other.

      Followed by the other unspoken rule (which is another reason they circle the wagons and stick together when scandal hits), “If I go down, you go down with me.”

      Makes me wonder what sort crimes and sins that Strang himself has done over the decades. Maybe someone can start a pool to see who guesses right.

  6. Recently I listen to Joshua Lewis of Remnant Radio tell a story about how a youth pastor got a 17 yr girl pregnant and the church exercised discipline like the Bible says, 4 families join the church because they realized it was safe place. It is sad that we don’t have the law written on our heart to do the right thing for God’s Glory, including church discipline. but instead we need the Gov. to step in. Even though this is needed. I don’t see churches supporting this. Pastors and leaders will spin it as Gov. over reach.

  7. Hi, Julie.

    I commend your call for “Christian leaders, denominations, and church planting organizations to support laws criminalizing ACSA. Stop protecting yourself. And start protecting the sheep.”

    1. Another excellent report by an excellent investigative reporter
      Thank you so much
      You folks are the best and that’s why I became a new donor.
      ¡Gracias de nuevo!

  8. julio,

    If everybody had refused to restore Kevin Prosch because he basically confessed he had been a predator, preying on multiple women, would Misty Edwards have avoided him?

    I think at minimum you have to draw the line at multiple offences. One might be enough, but certainly more than one should end a career.

    Prosch was restored within about a year despite a multiple-year series of abuses leaving multiple victims.

    In his case the quality of his confession seemed to be more valuable to his restoration than his behaviour, oversight, and testing over years.

    As Dr. Pooler noted in your interview, if he were to abuse one person in his profession, he would be banned for life. Why should it be different for a pastor?

    1. 100% Agree !!! First, ACSA should be criminalized and these false shepherds and predatory church leaders should have their license/credentials revoked. This would make them think twice before abusing the sheep. Second, Prosch was a serial predator and he was never restored …he just continued and then sadly preyed on Misty knowing he was a spiritual hero to her. Prosch should never be allowed to worship lead or preach anything. He should be in jail along with Bickle. The people and churches who are defending these 2 and others false leaders are apart of the problem. This whole thing is an embarrassment to the name of Jesus Christ…

    2. A friend I grew up with went to Bible college and into youth ministry. He ended up getting involved with more than one extramarital relationship in churches he worked at. When it came to light, he lost his ministerial credentials with no chance of recovering them (due to the multiple offenses and the time period they lasted). He and his wife saved their marriage, and now speak at church marriage events when invited, but he works a non-ministry job to support his family. So he is not returned to a position of authority, and any ministry he has is alongside his wife and helping others avoid his errors (not excusing them).

      1. Well that’s good to hear (relatively speaking) but affairs aren’t “errors”. They are egregious sins. They are alligning oneself with Satan, they are wilfullu choosing darkness (as anyone who has read the Old and New Testament – where Paul repeatedly marks sexual immorality as the worst of sins – knows).

        When will people stop minimizing them and their devastating consequences (not just for those immediately affected but for the horrendous WITNESS that besmirches the name of Christ)???

    3. As one of the women who came forward in 1999. I was appalled to see Kevin Prosch merch at a conference a year later. That ended my respect for Bickle. Years later I was used and abused by another pastor who was also a founding member of KC fellowship. It is rotten to the core in the leadership.

    1. Bosses can be sued and fired for sexual harassment. But the difference btwn a secular boss and a Christian pastor is that one works for the Corporation and the other is serving to Reflect and Honor God, giving a Pastor Greater Influence & Authority over The Flock. In most instances the Pastor’s Reach is Larger. That’s why the offense is so much worse and should be made punishable by Law.

    2. Teachers do lose their jobs over becoming sexually involved with their underage students. Come to think of it, they may lose their jobs too even is the student is over 16 yrs of age. Going to Serach for examples now.

  9. If people only repent because they are exposed, that isn’t biblical repentance. None of these men seem even slightly concerned that they are out of communion with God. I suspect because none of them have ever known communion with God in the first place. None cry as David, “against thee, thee only have I sinned.”
    Fact is, they may identify as “believers” just as women identify as men and visa-versa these days. We can identify however we feel on any given day but God knows what we actually are (not what we like to be called.) None of these individuals fit the biblical description of a Christ follower (aka Christian.)
    If it became suddenly illegal for pastors to receive salaries–that would solve the problem, period. All these people would immediately start looking for a new line of work.

    It’s fun to get paid to just talk about whatever you want to talk about. And it’s even better when lots of people listen to you and think you’re “all that” and it’s even better when people will submit their bodies as living sacrifices to you — all the while raking in a five or six figure salary.

    1. Alegría,

      That is correct. Feeling guilty and sorry is also not repentance (see Judas Iscariot as Exhibit A).

      A textbook example of repentance is the story of Zaccheus the Tax Collector in Luke 19.

      Not only does he repent, he offers to give back 4 times the amount he stole from people.

      But instead you have boilerplate “confessions” and admissions written with PR statements like:

      “Mistakes were made.”
      “If I wronged someone, then I regret my actions were misunderstood.”

      And so on.

  10. You missed an especially sordid incident involving Tavner Smith: A Tennessee megachurch pastor was discovered half-naked with a married co-worker by stunned worshippers – only to claim that they’d innocently been cooking chili, and had stripped down after accidentally spilling it.
    Last November, volunteers at the Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, paid a surprise visit to Pastor Tavner Smith at his house – but discovered the pastor wearing only his boxers, with a married church employee in a towel.
    The unnamed woman was married to another worker at Venue Church. Video circulating online is said to show the blonde woman – seen only from the rear – looking cozy with Smith, who divorced his wife last year, at a local restaurant.

    BTW, Smith’s ex-wife Danielle was the Executive Pastor according to her Linkedin page. As long as foxes are guarding the henhouses, well, we all know how that goes. That’s why we need these laws.

  11. I’m in favor of any punishment that you can dream up. I’m even more in favor of behavior that’s so above board and transparent that no accusation could ever be supported by evidence. Men of God should be held to a higher standard, NOT a lower one.

  12. Excellent commentary! Thank you for preserving those videos of Stephen Strang defending Mike Bickle. His loyalty to his “friend” sure trumps his loyalty to his God, that’s forever clear.

    1. Listening to Strang’s Initial defense of his friend, MB, and essentially blaming it on Satan was … unfortunately enlightening.

  13. Thank you Julie for your courage & your desire for truth at the expense of popularity & being accepted by those who seem to desire a false unity at the expense of truth. Please keep doing what you are doing in the careful way that you are doing it. Like you, I grieve when leaders fall, not so much for the leaders because to have gotten to the point of failure like this, they have had to ignore the “word behind them” when they have “turned to the left or to the right” but I grieve for those they have been called to watch over. One attitude I have heard articulated amongst leaders is that the sheep exist for the sake of the shepherd, that the people in a Church fellowship are there for the sake of the Church leadership & for the sake of the vision & ministry of the Church leadership. That is a complete denial of Ephesians 4:11-13 & the outcome of the Church embracing worldly leadership models. Anyway, keep it up Julie, you are appreciated.

  14. Your reporting is excellent, and your voice and commitment to journalism focusing on glaring issues with adult clergy sexual abuse is critical. I hope it garners the attention and work necessary to afford change.
    Gracias

  15. Thank you for your excellent reporting. You stand firmly for the victims of sexual abuse in churches and I am so glad you continue in the good fight.

  16. Pastors in the West have become weak, effeminate, greedy and lacking in godly character. Sadly, the scripture ignorant people in the seats support these charlatans. Wake up, Church! Just so sad…. Just walk away and quit giving to them!

  17. If a treasurer or chief financial officer of a church was convicted of embezzlement, would they ever again be hired by another church to be their CFO? I doubt it—I think that career would no longer be available to them. I believe it should be the same for anyone in the role/position of Pastor/leader. If you commit any type of sexual offense or moral failure—that’s it—you are immediately and permanently DONE as a pastor.

  18. In the book The Scarlet Letter it looks like instead of Hester having to wear an “A” the Reverend should have had to wear “ACSA”

  19. We live in a confused Christian culture. Does anyone know what “minister” means anymore? It means servant. I find it interesting that now it means a person in Authority. This report is insightful in asking “but why?” I would add to the list it’s about power and ego. It is sad “ministry” and “ministers” is double speak. Maybe we as a church would do well to take to heart scripture that says to make it our ambition to lead a quiet life. Are these scandal people leading people to Jesus? No. They are leading people to themselves. Why would we want to restore that kind of leader? Remove them! Stop building their empires at the cost of God’s kingdom.

  20. Church pastors won’t ever address the true root meaning of “fornication.” Porneía or fornix is basically having sex “with the expectation of ‘renumeration,’ or ‘a security,’ a ‘transactional mindset;’ ‘prostitution;’” within or outside of marriage. So, a woman who marries for fame or money is simply turning one big “trick” instead of many. The men also know, they wouldn’t be attracting a woman so young and beautiful if they didn’t allow them to think that their fame/financial lifestyle might be “quite an enticement.” But rich and/or famous pastors don’t want to lose congregants, because after all, the biggest tithers ARE typically the fornicators! The one’s with spouses younger than their children, so rich they own a massive opulent home.
    Many pastors, their trophy wives, rock the size of a quarter on their finger, haute couture designer fashions, on camera, front row seat of honour, giving announcements or “suddenly ‘annointed’” to preach on stage, are all guilty themselves.
    I don’t see many pastors marrying (at least after age 30 with any notoriety), a woman simply on fire for the Lord, submissive and a true Proverbs 31 lady, not half their age, not gorgeous by worldly standards, and not wealthy. Pastors enjoy fornication just like the world. Should they marry early, despite their commitment before God, many let the enemy “justify” in their mind how it “just isn’t ‘fair’ now that they can afford a ‘hottie’” so they help themselves to someone else’s future bride.
    It breaks my heart to see this and how it must grieve Him! The worldly, sure, but in the house of God?!
    Well, we’ve Jesus’ words and parables towards the Pharasees and Sadducees as to why, and how long it’s been going on…

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